In the urban resurgence accompanying the growth of the knowledge economy, second‐order cities appear to be losing out to the principal city, especially where the latter is much larger and benefits from substantially greater agglomeration economies. The view that any city can make itself attractive to creative talent seems at odds with the idea of a country having just one ‘escalator region’ where the rate of career progression is much faster, especially for in‐migrants. This paper takes the case of England, with its highly primate city‐size distribution, and tests how its second‐order cities (in size order, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham, and Leicester) compare with London as human‐capital escalators. The analysis is based on the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Survey of linked census records for 1991–2001 and uses one key indicator of upward social mobility – the transition from White Collar Non‐core to White Collar Core. For non‐migrants, the transition rate for the second‐order cities combined is found to fall well short of London's, but in one case – Manchester – the rate is significantly higher than the rest of the country outside the Greater South East. Those moving to the second‐order cities during the decade experienced much stronger upward social mobility than their non‐migrants, but this ‘migrant premium’ was generally similar to that for London, suggesting that it results from people moving only after they have secured a better job. Second‐order cities, therefore, cannot rely on the speculative migration of talented people but need suitable jobs ready for them to access. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.